A number of heated football derbies in the world are results of deeper socio-political divisions. In some places, football rivalries originate because of religion while difference in social status acts as a catalyst in others. In these days India’s position on the world football map is almost similar to the position of Micronesia on a general world map. Yet, one of the most unique and heated football rivalries in the world takes its roots in the sub-continent.
But first, a word about the football culture in India. The country maybe predominantly associated with cricket these days but her football legacy in older than some of the established super powers in world football. Football started in India in late 19th century as Durand Cup and IFA Shield, two of the five oldest football competitions in the world, captured the imagination of British and Indians alike. Indian football continued to take steps forward as 20th century dawned and by its second decade the greatest rivalry in the country, if not in this part of Asia, took wings. The rivalry between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal – often referred to as Kolkata (previously Calcutta) Derby or simply, as the local expression goes, “Boro Match” (the big match).
One of our main protagonists in this derby, Mohun Bagan Athletic Club is the oldest surviving football club in India as well as in Asia, having set up on 15th August, 1889 in Northern parts of Calcutta, the then capital of British India. Founded by famous lawyer Bhupendranath Basu, who later presided over Indian National Congress, Mohun Bagan club was formed thanks to the collaboration of a number of well to do families in posh Northern Calcutta. The club lined up in green and maroon shirts and sported a logo which showed a boat with unfurled sails. The main aim of the club was to propagate sports, especially football among Indian youth.
As fate would have it Mohun Bagan AC played a part in the birth of its bitter rival, almost 31 years after its own birth. With overcast conditions painting a grim picture in Calcutta’s “maidan” area where football matches usually took place, Mohun Bagan lined up against local club Jorabagan on 28th July, 1920. The encounter was an important tie in Coochbehar Cup but Jorabagan officials (the concept of coaches was yet to infiltrate Indian football at that time) dropped midfielder Sailesh Bose without any reason. There was a reason though, and it was not related to the game. Bose was a “Bangal”, a term used to describe immigrants from Eastern Bengal, present Bangladesh. Suresh Chandra Chaudhuri, vice president of Jorabagan and a Bangal himself was irate and left the club immediately to form a club which would specifically cater to immigrants from Eastern side of Bengal. The club was aptly named as “East Bengal” football club. Just like Barcelona and Cataluniya, East Bengal was an umbrella for an entire section of the society.
To understand the rivalry between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal one must understand the dynamics of Ghoti-Bangal rivalry. The state of Bengal was a unified province till 1905 when it was divided up into two halves – East and West. This political division only accentuated the deeper cultural and social divisions that already existed between people from each region. Ghotis came from Western side of Bengal (present West Bengal in Eastern India) while Bangals originated from Eastern side (present Bangladesh). These was a stark difference between two sets of people – they spoke the same language in totally different dialects, their practices were different, even their culinary habits were completely opposite to each other. Bangals, growing on the shores of river Padma preferred spicy food and would love nothing more than the fresh water fish “Hilsa” while Ghotis loved sweetness in their food and they swore by Tiger Prawns. Under British rule Calcutta (present capital of the West Bengal) became the political, cultural and financial capital of India.
A steady stream of people from Eastern side started moving thanks to prospect of jobs and education in Calcutta. The people in Western side didn’t exactly warm up to these new entrants who had markedly different habits. Late 19th century Bengali playwright Dinabandhu Mitra and satirist Kaliprasanna Singha aka “Hutum Pecha” have both made references to this contrast and friction between people from two sides. Ghotis, being the original inhabitants of Calcutta often enjoyed privileges from the authorities which Bangals didn’t. As a result of this the Bangals often suffered from discrimination and exploitation which further fuelled their anger against Ghotis. The exclusion of Sailesh Bose was an instance of this discrimination. The two halves were reunited in 1911 after wide-spread political protests but the cultural schism was not something which would go away easily.
The rivalry exploded to its fullest form after India became independent on 15th August, 1947. As Bengal suffered yet another partition over 2 million refugees crossed over from Eastern side to the Western side, a big chunk of this number became East Bengal supporters. The two clubs didn’t waste much time before becoming the main competitors for supremacy in Indian football.
Curiously, before the creation of East Bengal, Mohun Bagan used to contain many players from Eastern Bengal. Mohun Bagan’s IFA Shield winning team of 1911 contained as many as eight Bangals in the team. As a club Mohun Bagan didn’t start for just people from Western side of Bengal but after East Bengal was set-up people from Eastern side gradually changed loyalty as the Red & Golds (East Bengal’s jersey colour) garnered fans by thousands. In 1925 the two clubs first squared off against each other with East Bengal winning 1-0 thanks to a Nepal Chakravarty goal. The rivalry between two clubs was still in nascent stage in pre-independence era due to the presence of a common enemy in the form of British clubs. However, Mohun Bagan was seen as the “establishment” team with East Bengal often complaining about biased treatment from officials towards the Green & Maroons.
Since 1925 these two have played each other over 300 times with East Bengal holding the bragging rights on head to head performance. The Red & Golds have won 112 matches while their rivals have won 85 times. East Bengal, with 273 derby goals has a healthy lead over Mohun Bagan’s 227 goals.
Both sets of fans will tell you their own version of the story of upstaging their rivals. East Bengal fans are likely to brag about their head to head record. Or the fact that their team didn’t lose a single derby in Kolkata for a six year period between 1969 and 1975. Or the fact that their team recorded an unprecedented 5-0 win over Mohun Bagan in 1975 IFA Shield final. Or the fact that they are the only club side from India to win a title abroad, which they did with ASEAN Cup in 2003. Mohun Bagan fans have their own glorious tales. The fact that they were first Indian team to win IFA Shield in 1911 and the fact that their victory eventually had a larger socio-political impact on India’s freedom struggle. Or the fact that they have a superior record in two of the four main Cup competitions in India. Or the fact that they finally achieved revenge for the loss in 1975 when their team won 5-3 in a derby in 2009.
Both clubs have a sizeable and highly passionate fan base. In a country which often struggles to fill its football stadia, the Kolkata derby is invariably played in front of a crowd larger than 50,000. In 1997 Mohun Bagan faced East Bengal in semi-final of Federation Cup, India’s FA Cup in front of a whopping 131,000 strong crowd. This attendance is still a record in any sport in India and a record in Asian football. This match was also a clash between two veteran coaches Amal Dutta and PK Banerjee with the latter’s East Bengal side crushing their rivals 4-1, thanks to a hattrick (a first in derby’s history) by Indian superstar Baichung Bhutia.
This fanfare and passion has a darker side as well as cases of football violence are extremely common. 19 football fans were crushed to death during an ill-tempered derby match in 1980 as authorities failed in crowd control. Umakanta Paladhi, a die-hard Mohun Bagan fan committed suicide in 1975 after seeing his team lose 5-0 in the derby. In his suicide note he expressed a desire to be reincarnated as a Mohun Bagan player so that he could take revenge for this loss.
Surprisingly for a derby of such magnitude player transfers between two clubs is pretty common place. In a country where pool of quality players is extremely small both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan have successfully ensnared players from each other. Often their transfer activities would put a thriller novel to shame with players being almost kidnapped by club officials to secure his signature, as it happened in the case of Indian superstar Krishanu Dey in 1980s.
Even in current season the transfer of Australian striker Tolgay Ozbey to Mohun Bagan from East Bengal caused a legal conflict between the clubs. It reached its climax when Mohun Bagan refused to play their initial matches in Kolkata Football League in protest of what they thought was an unfair treatment of the Tolgay Ozbey transfer from authorities. Tolgay will probably not play in the derby which takes place next weekend but his transfer is likely to add more fire to this rivalry.